Monthly Archives: May 2013

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Positive Religion

In relation to my earlier post “But…”, this article is a lovely example of religion proving that it can provide a positive, peaceful message for the world.

Islam isn’t just about terrorism, y’know.

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Education: private or state?

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So, during my time in education as both student and teacher, I have attended almost every kind of school… C of E voluntary aided, secondary modern (not sure what the new term for these kinds of schools is), comprehensive, academy, private boarding school and private day school. The only type i’ve missed, i think, is state grammar – although my brother attended one. This has thrown up quite a lot of questions about which kind of education is ‘best’. Obviously a lot of it is down to your political viewpoint and ‘social conscience’ – a phrase my mother is a big fan of. In the last few years however, i’ve gone from being a supporter of private education to being firmly on the fence about it – probably with one leg dangling in the ‘against’ field.

I was a child who loved to read books about little girls being sent to boarding school, having sleepovers in dormitories, sneaking into the kitchens for a midnight feast, and causing some mild mischief with their school chums. I knew that financially it wasn’t possible, but I longed to be sent away to school, or to attend our town’s prestigious public school. When one of my good friends’ grandparents offered to pay for her to attend, I had to try and contain my jealousy. In the end, she hated it. I thought she was mad. How could she not appreciate all the opportunities such an education offered her? I would have loved the chance to learn in smaller classes, with better facilities, and teachers who were truly experts in their subjects.

However, when the chance finally came for me to attend one of these exclusive establishments (albeit as a staff member), I found the reality was not what i had anticipated. Fresh out of university, and wondering what I could possibly do with a music degree that wasn’t admin, I was offered a job at a local boarding school as ‘Musician in Residence’. It involved living on site, helping in the boarding houses, and getting involved in the musical life of the school. Great, I thought. A chance to use my subject knowledge, encourage others to take up music, and work in a sociable environment. Whilst there were many aspects of life at boarding school that i loved – good quality food, a really strong sense of school community, and a fantastic array of musical opportunities – I couldn’t help becoming frustrated at the sense of entitlement of the students. Their school offered them so much, and yet many of them had no appreciation of how lucky they were. There were of course those who worked extremely hard, said ‘thank you’ at the end of every lesson, and had a real sense of just how hard their parents worked to be able to send them to such a school, and these were the students for whom the staff were more than willing to go the extra mile. But equally there were those who did the bare minimum of work, blamed the school if their grades weren’t as good as they should be, and frequently wasted their parents money by missing paid-for extra tuition or activities. There were those who ordered take-away food every night, despite (actually rather good) food being provided for them, and those who felt they could behave how they wanted as they were paying to be there. It’s the same (to a lesser degree) in a private day school. The fees aren’t so extortionate, but the attitude of many students that ‘You have to make sure I’ll do well in my exams or my parents will stop giving you money’ still exists.

I suppose if I had got my wish and attended such a school as a student, I might have (probably would have) loved every minute of it, but equally I don’t think i’d have learnt to stand on my own two feet quite so well. One aspect of private school life which stood out to me was the fact that there’s always someone on your back, making sure you do your homework / coursework / revision, in some cases literally sitting down and doing it with you. By the time I got to Sixth Form this definitely wasn’t the case – if i wanted to do well, I had to make sure i had the self discipline to do my work. And that set me up well for university, where you have to be an independent learner to get anywhere.

private-school-cartoon-May1-JM

Alongside this, as a teacher there’s the slightly soul-destroying notion that the school is a business first and a school second. The head teacher in my final PGCE placement school made no secret of the fact that in the private sector, education is all a numbers game. He would proudly state at each staff meeting how many more students were coming into year 7 than the previous year, and how much more money this equates to. Open days  in private schools are not about inspiring students to learn, they’re about schmoozing wealthy parents and convincing them to invest their money in your school, even if you feel the school would not be a good fit for their child. And that makes me feel really uneasy. It goes against all of the reasons I became a teacher, and it feels dishonest.

And whilst when i was younger i had a romanticised view of private school, as an adult I have begun to resent that the opportunities I see on a daily basis weren’t open to me as a child. It’s ironic that in a nation known for our sense of fair play, we’re so proud of an education system which succeeds in upholding the class divide. Sure it has history, but not all traditions are worth keeping purely for traditions sake. Take slavery, for example.

I’m starting to think that if private schools didn’t exist, there would be more incentive for those with the money / power in our society – most of whom send their children to private schools – to take an active interest in our state education provision. It also seems likely that in order to benefit the education of their own children, there would be more individual donations to state schools, allowing state educational establishments to benefit from the nepotism and philanthropism that has been present in the private sector for hundreds of years. Admittedly, this might come at the cost of some of the wealthier / more influential parents trying to pull rank with the school’s senior staff, but this already happens to a certain degree anyway.

As Labour politician Dianne Abbott discovered, this debate becomes even more complicated when it involves your own children:

“Private schools prop up the class system in society. It is inconsistent, to put it mildly, for someone who believes in a fairer and more egalitarian society to send their child to a fee-paying school. But I had to choose between my reputation as a politician and my son.”

When it comes to my own children, I’m really going to struggle. There’s a part of me that wants them to have all of the opportunities that I didn’t have, and which undeniably exist in the private sector. But at the same time, I’m convinced that they should be able to be successful in whatever their chosen path without being the lucky few who are able to afford private education, and reinforcing the system. Of course every parent wants the best for their children, and state school provision can vary enormously from area to area – it’s often a safer bet to opt for private education, if your conscience and budget will allow it.

But for now, I’m determined to work in the state sector, and fight for all children to get the best education they possibly can.

‘but’…

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Religion has been on my mind a lot lately. A combination of The Book of Mormon, the Woolwich shooting, a school mentor who claimed to be ‘Richard Dawkins biggest fan’ and my mum becoming a Street Pastor have thrown up some interesting debates about Evangelism. This article – slightly confusingly written, if i’m honest – is a fair summation of my views, I think.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/andrewbrown/2013/may/27/im-an-atheist-wont-try-deconvert-anyone

I think that ‘humility’ is the most important word here. I have absolutely no comprehension of how people go around belittling, demeaning, even attacking those who have a different faith. In all honesty, none of us know what forces govern the universe, and to claim we do shows a complete lack of humility. Whilst this is an aspect of most major religions which is widely criticised, there are also a lot of non-religious people/groups that are equally as aggressive in their evangelising.

And I don’t know about anybody else, but for me, being told what i ‘should’ believe has the opposite effect anyway. I resent people thinking that they know the absolute truth, that there is no other possibility and that i’m categorically wrong. There are better ways of endearing your views to the general public. Being polite, respectful and a person I admire is far more likely to make me want to take the time to understand your beliefs system, no matter what they are.

jesus-mints

Having “You’re going to hell!” yelled at me on the high street by a preacher is not going to make me want to have a discussion about Christianity, and equally being told that “It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that)” is not going to make me want to convert to atheism. The best example I can give of ‘positive evangelism’ is that of Street Pastors, who go onto the streets of major cities late in the evening, handing out flip-flops, water, and liaising with bars and clubs and the police in order to try and keep people safe. They don’t ask for anything, they don’t publicise their religious beliefs, they just help people out, and act as positive role models to those who encounter them. Now that’s an idea i can get behind, no matter who is organising it!

So until someone finds categorical, unequivocal evidence one way or the other, I don’t think anybody should assume they have all the answers, let alone try to force them on to those around them. Just be cool, guys. Live and let live. Have enough respect for your fellow man to allow them to believe in whatever they want to. For all we know (in spite of what we believe), there might be a giant sloth in charge of the universe.

Book of Mormon…? Book of AWESOME, more like.

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I know it’s been said many times before, but this really is a great musical. Irreverant, sweet, funny and imaginative, with great songs and great staging. I mean, you couldn’t really ask for much more.

I bought the tickets months ago and was super excited, having seen posters declaring rave reviews all over London. I was determined to read / watch / listen to as little of the show as possible before I saw it – in my experience, musicals are always better if you see them for the first time live and with no (or as few as possible) preconceptions about the show – this was certainly the case with Matilda, Wicked, and Avenue Q. But when the designated evening finally rolled around, I was exhausted and grumpy, in the middle of a stressful final week of my PGCE placement, and really didn’t feel in the mood to watch a show full of crude, insensitive jokes about religion and sexuality. I prepared myself to be underwhelmed.

From the very first moment, however, I was captivated. The opening number – “hello”, a song about evangelists going to door to door, something most of us have experienced from the other side of the door – was a catchy, well written tune, cleverly choreographed and with great charm. And there wasn’t a single curse word or crude joke! This was most definitely not what i was expecting of the creators of South Park  – although they made up for it later with ‘Hasa Diga Eebowai’ [F*** You, God] which caused me a serious moral conundrum that went something like this: “Should i clap? Am i allowed to clap? What would my dad think?! Aargh. It was a really good song, I really want to clap, but if i clap this song will i go straight to hell? Darn that Christian upbringing! Darn those excellent songwriters!”

The laughs were frequent, and I can’t praise the writing enough – it was intelligent and witty, not just close to the bone. Although the Mormon religion is obviously the main focus, the derision was indiscriminate, with jokes about everything from AIDs to Disneyland, and that made the show a lot easier to enjoy – there was no uncomfortable “us and them” feeling to it. I was impressed at how well researched a lot of the writing was: from Mormon undergarments, to the history and geography of the Mormon church, it was all there. I actually learned a lot about Mormonism just from watching the show. For example, did you know that Mormons believe that the Garden of Eden is in Missouri? One to make a note of for any future pub quiz questions…

Alongside the comedy, though, there was a surprising depth to The Book of Mormon. There’re the obvious themes about religion and people blindly following faith, but I wasn’t prepared for how much focus there would be on the plight of the Ugandan villagers. There are a couple of genuinely shocking moments of violence, and the writers didn’t shy away (of course!) from more hard-hitting and controversial topics such as AIDs, female mutilation and civil war. In fact, as a tool against such violence and oppression, the over-arching moral of this musical is that religion can be a source of hope, and give people the strength to live their lives in difficult circumstances. Yes, it can seem to make no sense, cause conflict, be based on flimsy circumstantial evidence, and you might not want to take some of the stories too literally… But it does have it’s strengths. And if it’s giving people the strength to stand up to oppressors, it can’t be all bad.

…Although you should probably bear in mind that it’s a musical. It pretty much has to have a happy ending. It’s not Opera, y’know…

That poster I saw as I travelled down an escalator at Vauxhall tube station sums it up pretty nicely: “I loved this show. It’s completely bonkers. It has a beautiful heart.”

Actually, maybe i should have just posted that quote and saved you all the bother of reading this essay. Soz.

The Book of Mormon (musical)

The Book of Mormon (musical) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In other news…

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So i came across this article earlier today, and in light of today’s events in Woolwich, I thought maybe people would appreciate a more positive news story… Admittedly, it doesn’t start out too well, but hang in there.

I don’t know how many of you heard about this story in the news about a year ago: a homeless man was discovered next to a Miami motorway having his face chewed off by a naked man, who, on being ordered to stop by the police, refused, and was therefore shot and killed.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, the homeless man lost both of his eyes and nose in the attack, but is now getting free healthcare in an assisted living facility, all the food and heating he can take, a guitar of his own, and is actually living a better life than he was before the attack. In his own words, he’s ‘pretty content’.

And on a day like today, when it seems like the world is full of rage, it’s nice to see that occasionally something positive can come out of an awful event like this one.

You can read the full story here:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/may/21/miami-face-eater-victim-recovering-well?INTCMP=SRCH

HI MUM!

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A few years ago, my mother discovered knitting. Well, rediscovered really. Since then, it’s not a birthday without a pair of brightly coloured socks, and it’s not Christmas without them either. In fact, some of the more ungrateful amongst my family members might be tempted to say ‘get a new knitting pattern!’ but we are all very thankful for our toasty warm feet really.

These socks (let’s be honest, they’re quite hard to miss) are now so infamous amongst mine and my brothers’ friends that she’s started taking requests. If she likes you enough, she might even make you a customised pair with the design of your choice. And if you’re really, really lucky, she’ll make you a matching pair of gloves…

So as I turn 24 on the 24th, thanks for borning me, and thanks for keeping me in socks (and blankets and scarves and gloves)!

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http://www.guardian.co.uk/teacher-network/teacher-blog/2013/apr/27/michael-gove-policy-inconsistent-hypocrisy

This article sums up my own views on Michael Gove almost perfectly, and far more succinctly than I could manage. There are a few points I’d like to add (his derision for the arts, and his completely unsubstantiated views on education which seem to have no basis in real research or evidence, for example), but for those of you looking for more evidence to fuel your arguments against Mr Gove, this article from the Guardian’s Secret Teacher blog is a good’un.